There’s much talk about the need for innovation and focusing on well-being in our teams. But what does that look like day-to-day? What if we bring those two ideas together and focus on the human side to create safety to unleash creative innovation inside our team members?
Jen Croneberger is a sought-after four-time TEDx speaker and compassionate leadership/culture change consultant. An entrepreneurial powerhouse, she is the founder and chief inspiration officer of JLynne Consulting Group and The HUMAN Leadership Institute. Her clients and audiences have included notable pro athletes and teams and names like Giant Company, Nike, Penn Medicine, USA Hockey and P&G, to name a few. She recently co-founded and launched the ETHOS Mentality Group, helping professional athletes reimagine and transition to life after sports.
I sat down with Croneberger to gain practical insights from the sports psychology world on how to intentionally create a safe space enabling innovation through belonging and
Reuben: What noteworthy events in your background led you to what you’re doing today?
Croneberger: A lifelong athlete, I first started playing little league baseball with the boys, the only girl on my team. Later in life, I recognized the significance of what I did. So, I have always kept a foot in the sports world throughout my life. My master’s degree is in sports and human performance psychology; there’s something powerful about understanding competitive athletics and competitive athletes.
I combined ideas of team interaction, leadership and how we connect with people to get the best out of them. Transitioning from sports to the corporate world was seamless. People understood the correlation and could see why that performance has so much to do with how we lead and show up daily.
My focus is culture, creating psychological safety, holding space for people to show up as their true selves and demonstrating how that looks.
Today, we sit in this place of real opportunity. In the past couple of years, humanity’s been through a lot, experiencing a high volume of new things, stress and cortisol. Competitive athletes know that well, but it doesn’t last for many months; it’s a short period. We’ve been going through this for a long time.
Today more than ever, it’s critical to understand and have grace and compassion for people who generally, as a rule of thumb, are not okay.
We’ve learned how to show up perfectly, to leave that stuff at home. But when we show up at work, we’re not two different people; we’re the same person who just walked out the door with screaming kids, barking dogs, a sick spouse or whatever it is.
Nothing matters unless we focus on the human being. Nothing else can happen without us ensuring that we are whole and well. The work I’m doing today recognizes the importance of this human side. It’s okay. We’re going through it, but we must find ways to hold space for other people.
Reuben: What problems inspired the work you’re doing today?
Croneberger: I owned and ran a fabulous 20,000-square-foot athletic training center and loved every minute of it. Working seven days a week. I called my schedule “eight to faint.” I love sports but realized I couldn’t reach as many people as I wanted from one location. So, I closed and moved on to take the message to collegiate and pro teams. And about 12 years ago, I transitioned to the corporate world. The central question was, “how do we produce results from our people?” We focused on servant leadership by example.
A client wanted me to speak for their company and told me, “This all looks good. But I want to ensure you understand that we don’t want anything too touchy-feely because our people aren’t really like that.”
Pausing, I thought, “Did she say too touchy-feely? What does that mean?” Then, while convincing her I was not too touchy-feely, I imagined people in suits with serious faces like talking to robots.
She hired me. I wondered, “How can I show up as my true self and talk about being authentic, genuine and holding space?” I was speaking about love in the workplace before it was cool to talk about that. After I delivered my talk, I specifically remembered her saying at the very end, “Oh my gosh, that was perfect. Exactly what we wanted.” Now, the best part is I was touchy-feely because, you know what? I’m talking to human beings. We are emotional creatures.
Today, you can regularly read Harvard Business Review, Forbes and other publications about companies researching the importance of taking care of your people and the importance of belonging in the workplace. A sense of workplace belonging can save a company of 10,000 people $52 million. Why? Reduced turnover and increased productivity due to increased job satisfaction and engagement. Those things impact the bottom line; finally, we have the research to prove it.
Reuben: How must leaders show up today compared to what might have been taught in the past?
Croneberger: We must understand that empathy differs from sympathy; we often confuse them. It’s not just about being able to stand in someone else’s shoes. That’s great, but it’s more than that. Being vulnerable enough to risk going into that space where I might feel those emotions all over again. It’s sitting with someone in silence. None of us are good at that.
When someone loses a loved one, one of the most important things I think we can say is, “I’m here, and I’ll sit in it with you for as long as it takes,” not, “Hey, let me know what you need.” We don’t want to put the onus on them. It’s about showing up vulnerable in that time.
When we do, we inspire others. We permit others to do the same. That’s the crucial part of leading today.
I developed the Five C principles of showing up as your best self. Character, communication, choice, courage and confidence. I built my career on that. We created a framework for designing your breakthrough using these principles with athletes, executives and companies.
Now the program has evolved to the Five C’s 2.0, focusing on the principles of curiosity, clarity, commitment, consistency and choice (or culture-depending on the audience). When we lead by those five principles, we can find our way through grace and compassion to take others with us. We must pave the way for others, showing up and leading by example. But we need to set a different example today.
Reuben: What does it mean to show up and lead by a different example today?
Croneberger: Leaders must be curious. Curiosity makes us open to others’ ideas, thoughts and experiences. We have so much to learn and understand. We cannot be the center of information. Recognize that innovation happens with thought diversity, including other opinions and ideas different from mine.
Studying neuroscience helps us understand the brain and how it operates in business — seeing how the mind and body are connected. Knowing what makes different neurons fire, when and why. For example, to enhance focus for professional athletes, I had them write a mantra to repeat to themselves when competing. Understand that minds cannot focus on two things at once. We think we’re good multitaskers, but quite frankly, it’s impossible to do. Multitasking divides our time, results and outcomes.
Focusing on doing one thing at a time is good for business. Staying curious helps us develop the focus and ability to hear and see things differently — giving our minds different belief windows. Our experiences shape our world, but we must consider the experiences of others too. This combination leads to innovation. That’s the way it works. But we can’t do it if we’re stuck believing what we believe, thinking what we think. We need to be open to new answers.
Reuben: What can leaders do to expand their ability to operate that way?
Croneberger: Meditation. Neuroscience shows meditation is fantastic for working those brain patterns and developing elasticity to think outside of your current thoughts. But unfortunately, many people believe meditation is “hands out, arms and legs folded with a candle and some chanting.”
It’s not; it’s stillness, quietness and being in the present moment. Practicing being in the present moment does so many things for innovation and leadership and tapping into our people. But, unfortunately, so often, we don’t do a good job of it. We’ll look at something on our phone while someone is talking and think we are listening.
Remember, the brain can’t do two things simultaneously, so we’re not listening. So, No. 1 is finding ways to be present, and meditation is such an easy way to do that.
The second thing is practicing listening. Not just active listening, but listening with your eyes. Eye contact releases a brain chemical oxytocin, allowing us to be present and feel good about what we’re doing or saying. Imagine leveling up empathy and human connection by just making eye contact. Make eye contact. It will change everything.
Leaders can immediately practice these two simple things; it only takes seconds to make a difference.
Reuben: What’s one thing people can do today to shape a better tomorrow for themselves and their teams?
Croneberger: Understand that no one’s coming to save you. You are the person you’ve been waiting for. When you grasp that, you recognize: “You know what, I have so many opportunities ahead of me. I have so many wonderful choices that I get to make,” and not “that I have to make.” There’s a difference in what the mind reads in both of those scenarios. “I have to” or “I get to.” Change how you speak to yourself; change how you speak to others and recognize that you have everything you need.
“I have everything I need. And if I just show up that way, I can be okay. And so is everybody around me.” So, when we truthfully lead by example and show up that way over and over, other people will actually feel safe enough to do it too.
New possibilities arise when leaders intentionally model behaviors that foster inclusiveness and belonging, whether on the athletic field or the meeting room. In a world of uncertainty, harnessing curiosity can help us embrace new ideas, perspectives and experiences. We can act now to develop those behaviors that enable our teams to innovate and thrive in challenging times.
Jen Croneberger is chief inspiration officer and founder of JLynne Consulting Group and the HUMAN Leadership Institute, co-founder of Ethos Mentality Group, and a four-time TEDx speaker. She holds certifications from Harvard, Cornell and Yale. For more information visit teamjlcg.com and ethosmentality.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deborah Reuben, CLFP, is CEO and Founder of TomorrowZone, a technology strategy consulting firm bringing forward-thinking insights and original ideas to help companies gain efficiencies and design roadmaps for the future. She holds many industry leadership positions and authored The Certified Lease & Finance Professionals’ Handbook 6th-9th editions. Learn more at tomorrowzone.io.
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